When she regained consciousness, Nidhi Chaphekar was lying on the floor of Zaventem airport in Brussels, across the room from the bird-shaped statue she had been standing near a few moments before. She tried to open her eyes, but her body wasn’t doing what she wanted it to. Around her was a haze of thick black smoke, which was making her light-headed. She could hear her own internal voice, saying: “Nidhi, you’re alive. Nidhi, it was a bomb. Nidhi, you have to tell your family. The children have exams. Nidhi, come on, get up.”
It was 22 March, the day that suicide bombers Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui and one other unidentified man attacked Zaventem airport in the Belgian capital.
An hour later, el-Bakraoui’s younger brother Khalid set off a bomb at Maelbeek metro station on Rue de la Loi. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgian history, and the government declared three days of national mourning. Isis claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed 32 people and injured more than 300 others, including Chaphekar, a 41-year-old cabin manager for the Indian airline Jet Airways, whose photograph became a symbol of the horror of that day.
On level two of the departures area of the airport, Chaphekar lay still. Her body was weak, and she was scared that she would be shot if gunmen were still nearby. She pushed herself up and looked around for help in the smoke. Her broken wristwatch was frozen at 8.07am local time, the exact moment the bomb hit her. She called out – “Excuse me” – still polite in distress, but there was no reply.
She turned back to see the distance she had been flung. “Everything was shattered – the ceiling, the pillars, the counters, the baggage, oh my God,” she recalls, in her home in a suburb of Mumbai in India. “I gave up. I thought I won’t be able to do it. I thought: ‘Nidhi, you lie down.’”
A policeman ran past. Chaphekhar called for help. “He said: ‘Lady, are you fine? Don’t worry, I’m sending help, I have to take position.’”
A man in uniform, perhaps the same one, picked her up and put her on a chair nearby. Her shoe had melted into her foot, her hair was burned and her face was streaked with blood. What worried her most was that she had lost all feeling in her legs. “It was as if they weren’t there at all. I lifted one leg and put it on the arm rest, to put pressure on it. My foot was totally open like that,” she says, turning her foot to one side to show where a piece of metal had struck it and fractured the bone.
She looked down at her body for her staff lanyard, thinking she could use it to tie up her foot. “At that time, I saw I didn’t have my clothes on me.”
Nearby, Ketevan Kardava, a Georgian journalist, had just recovered from the shock of the blast herself. She picked up her camera to start documenting the scene. Chaphekar was one of the first victims she saw, and within minutes, her photograph was being shared on Twitter. Soon news websites and television channels started picking it up. The following day, it was carried on front pages around the world. “I didn’t even know someone had taken my picture,” says Chaphekar. “I was worried only about my bleeding.”
Chaphekar had started the day as she always did, buttoning up the yellow jacket of her uniform and sipping her cappuccino before taking the 7.40am crew bus from the Holiday Inn hotel to the airport to prepare for a flight to Newark, New Jersey, later that day. Too impatient to wait for the lift with the rest of her crew, she and a colleague, Amit Motwani, took the escalator. Just as they reached the Olivier Strebelle statue on the second floor, the first bomb exploded somewhere in the distance. Thinking the sound had come from a broken wheelchair battery or air conditioner, Chaphekar’s first instinct was to run towards the explosion to help. Motwani held her back. “I said: ‘Let’s go.’ He said: ‘No, wait.’ I said: ‘Amit!’ He said: ‘Wait.’”
She turned to the right and heard a man scream so loud that she thought he must be dying. She turned left and took six or seven steps when her foot hit something hard. “It was like, boom,” she says, making a low, deep sound. “And I flew like a football. It was like lightning … as if you’re put very close to the sun. I landed on my feet, and then I collapsed.”
It would be months before Chaphekar would stand upright again. Doctors found shards of metal all over her body, the biggest a 2.5in (6.35cm) piece lodged in her foot. Another had entered her eye. The skin of her face and hands had been burned and would need grafts from her thighs. The sound of the blast made a hole in her eardrum, and a loud hum inside her head still causes migraines.
When the stretchers came, they took her to an airport garage, where patients were being triaged. “They started putting tags on everyone, and we knew that was for priority. Severe first, normal later, mild last. I was trying to see which tag they had put on me. The paramedics came and cut open my trousers and saw I had deep wounds. So they put on another tag. I couldn’t see the tags because they’d fallen to one side. I was trying to see, and I didn’t know which was the higher priority one, so I put them both on my chest.”
While they were there, one of the staff suddenly pulled down the shutters of the entrance and lay on the ground. The room went quiet. “I asked him what had happened and he said sshhh,” she says, putting a finger to her lips. “I closed my eyes and started praying to God, thinking maybe it’s time for the last wish now.”
A bomb disposal unit had sprung into action as soon as the first explosion happened. They couldn’t prevent the second bomb – the one that hit Chaphekar – but they had managed to find a third by looking through CCTV footage, and quickly evacuated the surrounding area to carry out a controlled explosion.
In the garage turned triage room, the medical attendant got the all-clear. He rolled up the garage shutters again, so paramedics and doctors could continue to help victims.
From there, Chaphekar was taken to hospital in Antwerp and then airlifted to the Grande Hospital de Charleroi, about 30 miles south of Brussels. “In the [hospital] room, the whole team jumped on to me. ‘Any pain here in the abdomen?’ The doctors were checking my chest. I said: ‘No, no.’ I asked the nurse: ‘Is my face burned?’ She looked at me and said: ‘Why?’ I said: ‘My job.’ Because I knew, beauty is required, to be perfect is required, being physically, mentally fit is required. I didn’t want to be someone who was dependent on anyone else.
“I gave my name, date of birth. She asked: ‘Anyone here you know?’ That was the last conversation, and after that I didn’t know where I was.”
For 22 days after the blast, Chaphekar was in a medically induced coma while her injuries were treated. On 13 April, doctors reduced the sedation drugs she was on, and she awoke, in a dreamlike state, for the first time since the attack. She didn’t recognise her husband, Rupesh, or any of the family members who had flown from India to see her. He cried at her bedside but she didn’t respond.
It took two days for her to remember who she was and what had happened to her. When it suddenly came back, one morning around 10.30am, it was outside visiting hours, and she told the medical attendant she needed to see her family immediately, that she had been in a terrorist attack at Zaventem airport. “He said: ‘Yes, your family are all here, they’ve been here for a month.’ That’s when I realised how long I’d been out.”
The hospital phoned her husband. He was on a bus, which he immediately got off to go to the hospital. “That’s when I cried, not because of what I’d gone through, but because I’d put everyone through so much trouble. I was feeling very bad. My husband asked me: ‘Do you know how we came to know that you were OK?’ I said no. He said: ‘Your picture was uploaded and it was a viral picture.’”
For eight or nine hours after the attack, Chaphekar’s family had no idea which hospital she was in. The image of her, injured but alive, gave them hope. “When I saw the picture, I saw the trauma I had gone through, the shock I had experienced,” she says. “I was recollecting the other people around me. How helpless they were, how helpless I was feeling.”
Millions saw that image of Chaphekar, the victim whose face captured the collective trauma and shock of the day. When she looks back at it now, in her living room in Mumbai, Chaphekar has mixed feelings. “So many pictures were taken on that day, but somehow only mine was circulated because it showed everything – the circumstances, the panic, the trauma.”
Part of her feels that editors should have been more careful about how they used the picture. “Being a lady … this picture should have been blurred, cropped. Some media people have put it on the front page, the full page. When I saw that, I felt a little low. It doesn’t look nice. It’s not just adults reading the newspaper, it’s children too. And especially my children. I was worried somebody would say: ‘Look at your mom, don’t you feel ashamed?’ But nobody has said that. Everybody said: ‘Your mom is so brave. She’s like a tigress.’”
On 20 April, a week after she woke up in her hospital bed, Chaphekar asked to see her face for the first time since the incident. The nurse gave her a mirror and said: “You’re looking better, don’t forget.”
“When she showed my face to me, I was just wondering: ‘Is it me?’ I was looking into the mirror and the nurse said: ‘Are you fine?’ I nodded and said yes. Then my sister and her husband came to see me, and she read my face. She said: ‘What happened?’ I said: ‘I don’t want to live.’ My sister said: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I said: ‘I saw my face. And it has big patches and deep cuts, and who would look at me? My kids, my husband, my organisation, they’ll say, now you’re not a normal person.’”
Her sister consoled her. “She said, people don’t look up to someone because of their beauty, they look up to strength. And you have shown strength. People are with you.”
To prove it, she arranged for Chaphekar to speak to her kids on a video call. “I was worried [about their reaction], but they saw me, and they said: ‘Yay, our mummy’s back.’ And I realised it didn’t matter to them.”
Chaphekar started setting herself small goals. She asked the nurses if she could clean her body herself. She started tying her own bandages. One day, when her legs were better, the doctor asked her to try taking a couple of steps. “If he said take two steps, I did five or six.”
Her determination was no surprise to Chaphekar’s family. Even as a young woman, she had never been the type to give up hope. She had wanted to fly, but when she realised she didn’t have the right qualifications to be a pilot, she bought herself a dress and interviewed for a job as a flight attendant. The talented athlete and beauty pageant queen, who married for love and against her parents’ wishes, worked her way up to cabin manager at Jet Airways.
Her childhood also bred resilience. She was raised in the village of Rajasansi, near an airport in the north Indian state of Punjab, she recalls one incident during the Sikh uprising in the 1980s when armed men ransacked her house and put a gun to her head. She was only 12. But not even that could prepare her for the sound a bomb makes when it explodes.
“How can a person be so inhuman?” she says, referring to the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks. “You may have grudges, but this is not the way. You have to be brainwashed. It’s very tough to take your own life. And with your own life, you’re taking hundreds of others, those who are not even involved, not even aware. How can humans do this?”
Almost six months have passed since that day at Zaventem airport. Chaphekar is slowly getting back into her normal routine. She wears long sleeves even in the boiling Mumbai sun, to conceal the burn marks and scars all over her body. When she rolls up her trousers, there are still small pieces of metal under her skin. Her hands and feet are covered in grafts and wrapped in bandages, so simple tasks such as switching on a light or turning a page can be difficult.
She has stopped reading newspapers and still cries when she thinks about the people she saw suffering with her at the airport. But she can feel herself getting better every day. Her hair has grown back. Her feet are starting to heal. She hopes soon to go back to her job at Jet Airways.
“I do believe it was destiny,” she says. She hadn’t been scheduled to fly that day, but her rota had been changed last minute. “It was supposed to happen to me. And I’m glad it did. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.”